Moral judgments recruit domain-general valuation mechanisms to integrate representations of probability and magnitude

Neuron. 2010 Aug 26;67(4):667-77. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.07.020.


Many important moral decisions, particularly at the policy level, require the evaluation of choices involving outcomes of variable magnitude and probability. Many economic decisions involve the same problem. It is not known whether and to what extent these structurally isomorphic decisions rely on common neural mechanisms. Subjects undergoing fMRI evaluated the moral acceptability of sacrificing a single life to save a larger group of variable size and probability of dying without action. Paralleling research on economic decision making, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum were specifically sensitive to the "expected moral value" of actions, i.e., the expected number of lives lost/saved. Likewise, the right anterior insula was specifically sensitive to outcome probability. Other regions tracked outcome certainty and individual differences in utilitarian tendency. The present results suggest that complex life-and-death moral decisions that affect others depend on neural circuitry adapted for more basic, self-interested decision making involving material rewards.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Ethical Analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Neural Pathways / blood supply
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Probability
  • Risk
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen